Monday, July 31, 2006

Monday, July 31

I grabbed about 10 minutes early this afternoon to play through mm 20-22 of the fugue. It didn't sound great, but it didn't sound bad, either. That's good news.

This evening, I sat down for my real practice, which lasted about 80 minutes. The scales o' day were Gb-major and Eb-minor. I love Gb-major. I think it's my second-favorite scale, after Db-major. Eb-minor has given me problems in the past; that 3-1 crossover in the LH always gets me. I did 9-8 and used the C-major fingering and did rhythms. It sounded pretty good after all that, but truth is, I really didn't want to spend that much time on scales tonight. Oh well. I'm obsessive. What else can I say?

I know, I know, I know I was supposed to start with Liszt, but I yielded to temptation and started with Bach. The next few measures after measure 22 are a little easier because one of the voices drops out for a bit. I worked on those measures, and while I won't say they were easy, they were much more accessible HT from the start.

I moved on to the Liszt. I worked on learning the first half of the piece, from measures 1 to about measure 38. I already know the rest of it, and the first half is much easier than the second half. It's still tricky, but I'll have it before too much longer.

I did spend some time working on the voicing in several measures of the Liszt. There are quite a few spots where I'm playing thirds in my RH and the higher notes need to be louder than the lower notes. So I worked on making the higher notes sing while playing softer lower notes.

It wasn't a bad practice session, but I did finish it feeling a little deflated. Both of these pieces are "stretching" me, to use Deborah's word. Honestly, I really think the fugue is too hard for me. I told her that, and she basically said I shouldn't have such a negative attitude. I wonder if I'm really being negative, though. I don't feel negative about the piece, or my progress. I love it, and I love working on it. I just think it's a big step from where I was before, and I feel a little (a lot) overwhelmed by it. Sure, I can learn it, and I will, and I love it, but it's costing me blood, sweat, and tears (metaphorically speaking, mostly) to learn every single four-note beat. It's not like I want to be able to play it perfectly the first (or even the hundredth) time I look at it, but it's taken two weeks of hard practice just to get six measures. Granted, I can play those six measures quite well (and by memory) now, but I still feel like an ant trying to climb Kilimanjaro.

And the Liszt ... I felt bored with the Liszt tonight. Maybe I was just tired. But it seems like I've worked on it for such a long time and have gotten almost nowhere.

On top of that, my right forearm aches after Bach practice and my left forearm aches after Liszt practice. NOT good. I posted about this on the Piano World Piano Forums, and people are saying to see a doctor about carpal tunnel syndrome. I really hope it's not that.

My lesson last week was good, but one thing frustrated me: my piano teacher and I probably spent 25 minutes of the 60-minute lesson chatting. Granted, we're both going through some things and are friends as well as teacher and student, but we never really got to "dive in" to either of the pieces. A lot of the lesson time we did use for piano went to scales, inversions, arpeggios, and Suzuki. We probably had 15 or 20 minutes total for both the Bach and the Liszt.

I think both of us would have preferred to do more piano and less chatting, but it just didn't happen. I think we both need to agree to keep the chat time to a minimum in the future so we can make more time for piano.

I have two more practice sessions between now and Wednesday's lesson. My goals are to learn to play a few more measures of the fugue smoothly, and to play the Liszt in its entirety. I'll also work on the prelude, which has been on the back burner for the past couple of weeks. It's not exactly easy, but it's certainly easier than the fugue. Maybe I should work on it more; I feel like I need something a bit more manageable these days.


It's Monday morning, and I'm running late. However, since I'm not actually employed at the moment, it's not stressing me out. So I wanted to be at the coffee shop to working on Jan's book for 9:00. So it's 9:26 and I'm still at home. Big deal.

My life has changed drastically, my friends, over the past few weeks. If you read this blog with any regularity, then you know that I was plagued with insomnia for months. From last August until about three weeks ago, I averaged two, maybe three hours of sleep a night. Some nights I never even slept at all. And all of this occurred while I was working 16-18 hours a day.

Insomnia makes you crazy. A few nights of insomnia are bad enough, but but eleven months of it is enough to send one to the loony bin. Add to that mix a demanding job, major depression, and my unmedicated and already-weird brain chemistry, and you have a recipe for disaster.

And a disaster it was (no details necessary ... just take my word for it!). I was so busy during the school year that I never made time to go to a doctor and get medication. I didn't have health insurance anyway, and no one wants recent treatment for "mental health issues" on their record when they're trying to get health insurance later on.

You hear about "teenage depression," and I was hoping it would end when I finished being a teenager, but it looks like this is something I'm going to have to deal with, on and off, for the rest of my life. It's very frustrating because I've lost friendships over it. I've probably lost job opportunities and other opportunities as well, simply because I happened to be in one of my "nonfunctional" periods when the opportunities presented themselves.

I've been nonfunctional for most of the summer. I had big plans for the summer, big plans for teaching next year. I was nonfunctional when I resigned last spring. I don't regret resigning, but I do wonder if I would have done so, and if my job would have been more manageable, if I'd been going on six or eight hours of sleep a night, instead of zero to four.

I finally made it to the doctor about three weeks ago and got a sleeping med (Restoril) and an antidepressant. Not the best treatment for bipolar disorder, but considering I've suffered allergic reactions to the most common bipolar treatments, it's what I have to take for now.

Life is getting better. I'm sleeping, and that has made a world of difference. One night I actually fell asleep without taking the Restoril, but I woke up feeling like I had a bad hangover, feeling like I'd relapsed into the shaky, anxiety-ridden hell that had become "normal" for me for so many months.

So maybe I need to take sleeping meds for the rest of my life, too. I'll do what I have to. I'm finally starting to feel truly normal again, and I'd forgotten what that felt like. Looking back on it, I'm amazed that I ever even made it through the school year.

I hate taking drugs of any kind, but I'm thankful that I have them. My poor, long-suffering Hubster is, too!

Sunday, July 30, 2006

More Bach Tonight

I put in another 60 minutes or so tonight. Started with the usual scales and arps. I know I don't need to start every single practice session with them, but I choose to do so. It gets me "in the mood," so to speak. Yep. Think of scales and arps as the appetizer, or a pre-dinner glass of wine.

I was supposed to practice Liszt tonight. The Bach was still open on the piano, though, so ... I decided to play measures 16-22 through once, just once, before moving on to the Liszt.

Well, what do you know? Did I practice earlier today? Didn't I? I thought I did. But you wouldn't have known it by listening to me. It was like I'd never even learned measures 20-22!

Back to the drawing board.

After all that drilling of measure 20 using the former fingering, my LH was confused about the new fingering. So I had to re-drill it all, as if I were drilling for the first time. I put my nose to the grindstone and my fingers to the keys. I was a woman on a mission. I was going to get measure 20, and play it smoothly and well, even if it meant spending an hour or more on it tonight.

It's still not perfect, but it's much better. It's just a very tricky section. The RH is playing a unison F-double-sharp (I think) that's supposed to be a staccato in the soprano and held note in the alto ... all at once! Also adding to the confusion is (again) the smallness of my hands. At one point, I have to play three notes of the alto melody by alternating my thumbs. All of this while, of course, the other parts of the hands are playing entirely different things.

Such is the joy of the fugue.

I spent all of that time (yes, all of that time) working on those danged measures 20-22. Oh, wait. I did play through the Liszt once at the end of practice. It's beautiful, but it pales in comparison to the fugue. (Now, if I were to practice the Liszt first and really get into it, then I'd probably say the fugue pales in comparison to the Liszt.)

Guess I'll start with Liszt tomorrow!

Playing Catch-up

Yes, I'm pathetic. I had a lesson last Wednesday, and it went quite well, but then I didn't practice piano again until today, Sunday, many days after my lesson.

I did practice some gospel stuff for church. Playing big chords and octave-scales as accompaniment can be lots of fun, and that's what I did at church this morning. This afternoon, it was back to Bach.

I practiced for about 90 minutes. Played scales and arpeggios for the first time since last Wednesday and ended up having to do the 9-8 for F major. F major, always the weird one among the white keys. Not much of a problem, though. I'm doing 9-8 whether I feel like I really need it or not because it really helps.

Then I moved on to Bach. Played mm 16-19 a few times to reacquaint myself with the fugue, then moved on to mm 20-22. Whew. Measure 20 is a butt-kicker. I drilled it many times (too many to count), and I still wasn't comfortable with the fingering, so I changed it. I hate having to change fingering after working so hard to establish a different one, but my hands' discomfort with the original fingering (after trying it in dozens of drills) was a message that I had the wrong fingering for me. So I changed it, drilled the new fingering about five times, and had no problem.

It's still a tricky measure, so I'll need to work on it some more later.

Measures 21 and 22 were easier to play HT than they were HS. These are the first two measures I've found in this fugue that are actually easier when played HT.

At my lesson on Wednesday, by the way, Deborah said that my snippet of the fugue sounded really good. I expressed some mock-frustration at how long this is going to take me to learn it (mock-frustration because I'm not really frustrated; just amusedly overwhelmed, if one can be that). She said not to worry about it, and that the way I'm learning it (memorizing while making sure the fingering is correct every time, as well as the holds, staccatos, etc) will necessarily take longer than just learning to play the notes.

I've saved tonight's practice for Liszt. It'll be tempting to go back to the Bach, though! The time flies right by when I'm working on that fugue.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Happy Birthday, Blog!

"A Sort of Notebook" is two years old today. I hope that doesn't mean the "terrible twos" are in store for it!

In the past two years, I've been through five jobs. The technical writing ("Cubicle Land") job was the most conducive to blogging, but I've still managed to keep the blog up through the other jobs, too. Thanks to all who have continued to read!

Friday, July 28, 2006

School Update

School starts at the end of August. I'll be teaching one class (composition) in the afternoons, so I need to start thinking about that at some point. Six people have signed up so far. It's a writing teacher's dream come true: six intelligent, hard-working, college-bound students in a writing class. I've had two of the students already (in British Lit last year), and they were among my "most improved" students. I am looking forward seeing their writing, in particular, improve this year.

I went by the school the other day to visit with the principal. I don't regret having resigned from the English-teacher position. I have wondered, though, if I would have done the same thing, had I not suffered from chronic insomnia for the entire school year. It made me pretty crazy and nonfunctional by the time June rolled around. But that's water under the bridge. One of these days, I'm going to devote an entire post to the madness of chronic insomnia, but everyone has to promise first not to judge me. ;-)

Anyway, it looks like I'm going to have three main jobs in late August/early September: teaching, editing, and a freelance tech writing job that will (hopefully) come through. I'll probably get a few "tutoring clients," as well.

I'm really not very excited about the upcoming school year. I get tired just thinking about it. I think I'm still burned out, and I really haven't recovered yet from the insomnia/depression thing. New medications have made me loopy. Hopefully I'll de-loop by the time school starts!

Update: Regaining a Sense of Normalcy

Friends and members o' family have begun to complain that they never know what I'm up to, since I'm not blogging three times a day.

OK. I'll try to do better. I promise.

I feel like crap today because I didn't take my sleeping medication last night. I was tired enough to sleep on my own, and I woke up feeling like I had a major hangover. I've felt groggy and irritable all day. Does this mean I'm addicted to my sleeping pills?

Anyway ...

School starts at the end of August. I'll be teaching one class (composition) in the afternoons, so I need to start thinking about that at some point. Six people have signed up so far. It's a writing teacher's dream come true: six intelligent, hard-working, college-bound students in a writing class. I've had two of the students already (in British Lit last year), and they were among my "most improved" students. I am so excited about seeing their writing, in particular, improve this year.

I went by the school the other day to visit with the principal. I don't regret having resigned from the English-teacher position. I have wondered, though, if I would have taken the same course, had I not suffered from chronic insomnia for the entire school year.

It started in late August. I went on a bit of a high that carried me through October. I was giddy. Happy. Productive. I slept maybe two hours a night, if that.

In November, I started feeling tired. I'd felt tired before, of course, but it was the tired-with-two-pots-of-coffee-in-me tired. I didn't have two pots of coffee in me; I just have weird brain chemistry.

I hung on through December, the holidays, January ... and then February came. I crashed in February. I went from walking on air to six feet under. I got DEPRESSED. Bad depressed. (I briefly mentioned it here.) So depressed I probably should have been in a hospital. On top of that, I still had "highs," but they were BAD highs.

I still wasn't sleeping. I was lucky to fall asleep by 4 a.m. (and I had to be up at 6:00). I managed to function, but barely. By the time May and the end of the school year rolled around, I was as depressed as I've ever been. Once school ended, I shut down. Became pretty much nonfunctional. I still don't know how I managed to finish out the school year. I guess I just felt like I had no choice. I really don't remember a lot of it.

I've spent most of this summer doing two main things: practicing piano and editing Jan's book. It's all I've been able to do. I still couldn't sleep, and I had long since begun to turnin into Not Me. Again, no details, but trust me ... I was Some Other Person. Some Other Bad Person (S.O.B. Person).

Lots of bad things occurred as a result of my unintended eight-month sleep-deprivation experiment and resulting S.O.B. Person-hood. It's amazing that it took me to long to go to the doctor for sleep medication, and maybe something for the mood swings.

I'd meant to go sooner, but I was always so busy, you know? That, and I really don't like taking medication, particularly since I have lots of weird medication allergies.

I got Restoril for sleep. I now sleep eight hours a night. I'm rested. I'm calm. I'm me again.

So that's what I've been doing for the last two weeks of my life. Recovering from eight months of not sleeping. Starting to feel normal again. Starting to feel like myself again. Now that I feel normal, I'm realizing that I haven't felt normal in a year. Now that I'm "myself" again, I'm realizing what a nightmare the past eleven months of my life have truly been.

Never again. If it means being on drugs for the rest of my life, then that's just what I'll have to do.

So I had a normal day today. Visited with some Louisiana hiker friends, talked about backpacking gear (always fun), and played three sets of doubles this evening. Ate. Got the mail. Did the dishes.

At my lowest point (i.e., the last five months of my life), the very idea of eating, getting the mail, or doing the dishes would have overwhelmed me. The very thought would have sent me into a tailspin of panic and anxiety and, ultimately, back down to the soul-numbing depression.

Where was God in all this? I don't know. So much of my very memory of the past year is kind of a black hole. It's hard to think about.

Anyway, it was good to have a normal day today. I'm planning to have another normal day tomorrow. And maybe the next day, too. :)

Shopping Spree

I go on two kinds of shopping sprees: one for backpacking gear, and one for books. Lately I've been on an ongoing spree for books.

I can't help it. Perhaps I need to join a support group (Bibliophiles Anonymous, anyone?). I was supposed to meet my mom at Barnes & Noble several days ago, not because either of us planned to go book-shopping, but because B&N was a good, central location with a coffee shop where we could meet and chat.

Well, I wasn't in B&N for five minutes before I'd bought Shakespeare by Anthony Burgess and Write: 10 Days to Overcome Writer's Block. Period. by Karen E. Peterson. (Ah, yes. That's what we writer-types do when we don't feel like writing. We read books about writing. Brilliant.)

Then yesterday I found Run with the Horsemen by Ferrol Sams for $2 at a used-book store. How could I say no? I love that book. I was planning to let a friend borrow my copy, but I couldn't find it; I probably lent it to someone else and never got it back. So I picked up another copy for my friend.

Then today ... oh, my. Today was the second day of the Friends of the Library's annual book sale. I went on a spree. A major spree. I budgeted $25 for this particular spree, which I'd been fantasizing about for a good part of the summer. I went this morning. Damage assessment? I spent all of $16.50. Here's what I found:

Man and His Symbols, by Carl Jung
Jung: A Biography, by Gerhard Wehr
Soule’s Dictionary of English Synonyms
The Story of English, by Robert McCrum, William Cram, and Robert MacNeil
Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
Classical Elements in English Words, by Robert E. Wolverton
I Really Should be Practicing, by Gary Graffman
The Great Ones: Classical Music’s Legendary Performers, by Harold C. Schonberg
Writing the Natural Way, by Gabriele Lusser Rico
How to Read a Book, by Mortimer J. Adler
Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Style, by Joseph M. Williams
Mythology, by Edith Hamilton
Literary Agents: A Writer’s Introduction, by John F. Baker
Just This Side of Madness: Creativity and the Drive to Create, by Carol Ann Morizot
On Writing Well, by William Zinsser
Steps in Composition, by Lynn Quitman Troyka and Jerrold Nudelman

Several of the books on writing, particularly Zinsser's, will come in handy for teaching composition this year. (And for, er, my own use when I don't feel like writing.)

I didn't buy any fiction. I usually prefer to check out fiction from the library, unless it's a book I really love or need. (Need? Yes, need.) As you can see from the list above, I like to buy reference-type books on language and writing. I also have a soft spot for grammar textbooks but was disappointed not to find any old grammars there today. Maybe next year.

Still--not bad for $16.50, hm?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Inanimate Objects with Names: Cars

If you read this blog with any regularity, you probably know about my laptop, Franz, and my piano, George. And you've probably figured out that I have a tendency to give names to inanimate objects.

I was thinking about that this morning on my way to Asheville in my car, Elton. "Self," I thought, "You've named every single car you've ever had."

My first car was my actually dad's car, a white Isuzu Impulse. It looked kind of like this. His name was Elmo. I'm not sure why I named him Elmo, or why I made him a "him." All of my friends with cars had named their vehicles, too. (OK, so I went to a ritzy private school. A lot of my friends had cars.)

My second car was a used 1986 Ford Tempo that looked like this one, only imagine that it's red-orange.

Because the car was a Tempo, I decided to give name it "Allegro," allegro being a nice, fast-but-not-too-fast tempo in music.

Well, I had this car at Mary Baldwin College. The school is built on a steep hill. My Tempo slowed to an absolute crawl on those hills. So I renamed it "Largo." In music, largo was the slowest tempo on the metronome.

After college, I traded in old Largo and got a brand-spanking new 1992 Plymouth Sundance America. It looked a lot like the car featured here. I loved the color, which was aqua. I never had trouble finding it in a parking lot. Ever. This car's name was Aquaman. I wanted to get "AQUAMAN" for my license plate, but they charge an arm and a leg for those personalized things!

Well, Aquaman eventually got traded in, and I drove my mom's car, a Dodge Intrepid, for a year or so. I never named it. It wasn't my car, so I didn't feel like I had a right to name it.

Now I have a Dodge Neon named Elton. The only reason I named it "Elton" was because of the Elton John song, "In Neon." Whenever I thought, "I'm driving a Neon," I would get that song stuck in my head.

So yes, I guess you could say that I named my car after Elton John.

So, do you name your vehicles? Do tell!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Finally Meme-ing

As you can tell, I've neglected this poor blog lately. You might even say I've been cheating on it, since I post to my practice log nearly every day. The practice log seemed like a good idea--I could post my practice notes without boring my "A Sort of Notebook" audience to tears--but when I do sit down to blog, I tend to go to the practice log and not here. Not good.

I was tagged for a meme ages ago by Coturnix. So, finally, I'm going to Just Do It. It's meme-time!

The "4" Meme

4 jobs you've had:

1. English composition teacher
2. Social services director
3. Life-drawing model
4. Secretary Administrative assistant

4 movies you could watch over & over:

1. Amadeus
2. Shadowlands
3. Harold & Maude
4. Shakespeare in Love

4 places you've lived:

1. Yellowstone National Park, WY
2. Plaquemine, LA
3. Staunton, VA
4. New Orleans, LA

4 TV shows you love to watch (I rarely ever watch TV):

1. House (though I thought it was a home-improvement show before I ever saw it)
2. Law and Order: SVU
3. Mindless VH-1 "countdown" shows
4. "I Love the 70s" on VH-1

4 places you've been on holiday:

On holiday? That's British for "on vacation" isn't it?

1. Israel
2. Hot Springs, Arkansas
3. Disney World
4. The Appalachian Trail (pretty good six-month "holiday")

4 websites you visit daily (I read most blogs via Bloglines):

3. (usually!)
4. Piano World Forums

4 of your favorite foods:

1. Chocolate
2. Avocado rolls from Zen Sushi
3. Broccoli
4. Cauliflower

4 places you'd rather be:

1. on the Long Trail in Vermont (though the blackflies might be bad right now)
2. on the Pacific Crest Trail
3. at the piano (George is waiting!)
4. with my husband, who hasn't been home all summer because he's a camp director

4 lucky people to tag (I don't know if any of these, except maybe Pei Yun, are meme types. We'll see!)

1. Miz Delphi Chassis
2. eArThworm
3. Pei Yun
4. Sojourner


My piano teacher is a Suzuki piano teacher. The Suzuki Piano Method was developed at Shinichi Suzuki's Talent Education Institute and is an extension of the Suzuki Method for violin. It's basically a pedagogical approach, generally for small children, in which the child learns to play music by ear before he or she ever learns to read a single note.

Now, I would probably have loved Suzuki, if I had found such a teacher at the age of four, when I already had a handful of learned-by-ear tunes in my "repertoire." And now, although I read music quite well, I still depend on my ear a great deal. I like to hear pieces before I ever learn them. I don't have to hear them, but I prefer to. Once it's in my head, it's easier for me to play. Makes sense, doesn't it?

In fact, and this is a little embarrassing, I was horrible at reading time signatures until about two years ago. I was fine if something was in 4/4, but 3/4, 6/8, 5/8, etc., just confused me. I couldn't sight-read very well because I had never really learned to read note values. In the past, whenever I needed to learn a piece, I would have the teacher play it or, when I began more advanced repertoire, find a recording of it. Any confusing problems with reading music ceased to be a problem once I could hear how it should be played. (Is that cheating?)

When I took up piano again, I also started playing some for church. The "praise team" (mostly guitarists who don't read music) handed me some music and said, "We don't know this one. Can you play through it so we can hear what it should sound like?" It was in 6/8 time. All I could do was shrug and say, "I can play the notes, but I can't play the timing."

Embarrassing, indeed. How I managed to make it through sixteen years of piano lessons and two semesters of music theory in college and never truly learn note values is beyond me. I think part of it was that I hated math and anything else that had to do with numbers. Timing, counting, values ... it reeked of mathematics.

After that incident, I found myself a music theory teacher and started at the beginning. Once he was clear that, yes, I sight-read beautifully as long as I didn't worry about note values, we went into the note values themselves.

It turned out that it was all very easy. I couldn't believe it. I had spent my life avoiding the "math" aspect of music, and it was hardly math at all.

All of this leads up to Suzuki. It really does.

When I started taking from my current piano teacher, she assigned a couple of Bach inventions and the Chopin Bb-minor nocturne (Op. 9, No. 1). A few weeks later, she asked if I would be willing to work through the Suzuki method. She wanted to see how it might help my technique, which was certainly rusty from years of not playing or having a teacher.

I gamely said, "Sure," and proceeded to Book One. Book One is actually a CD. I would listen to the simple little tunes and learn them by ear. It took me between 3 and 5 minutes for the RH-only pieces, maybe 10 minutes when both RH and LH were involved. Part of the difficulty is that the pianist on the CD plays the LH very softly, and my hearing isn't the greatest for very high and very soft sounds. (I'm deaf in one ear and part-deaf in the other and have trouble with certain volumes and frequencies.)

Still, I moved through Book One pretty quickly and started Book Two. These pieces are a little more complicated, but still not difficult--Bach minuets, Schumann's "The Happy Farmer," etc. I learn them quickly when I try, but I've dragged through this book because I have zero motivation to work on these pieces. I just find it very boring. Once I have the piece by ear, I'm allowed to use the book and work on dynamics. That part can actually be rather helpful. It's not a bad thing to work on technique using pieces that pose virtually no challenge in the way of difficulty.

Still, I'd rather work on technique using the prelude, the fugue, or the Liszt. Or, if I were to work on a lower-level piece, I'd pick one of the easier Chopin preludes or Bach inventions. Or, if I'm going to practice playing by ear, I'd rather get a jazz fake book, listen to Erroll Garner and Bud Powell and Thelonius Monk recordings, and learn to play what they're playing. I did quite a bit of that when I was in my twenties.

I just hate having to spend the time to learn these things by ear. I probably need sight-reading training more than I need ear-training. When working on Suzuki, I get the RH melody immediately. The LH takes longer because, again, it's so soft that I have trouble hearing it at all. I use my knowledge of theory more than my ear to figure it out. All in all, it takes me about 15 minutes to get the entire piece by ear, then another 15 minutes (the next day) to play through it so that it's smoothly memorized.

I shouldn't complain about it. After all, it's only 30 minutes a week. But still, I'd rather spend those thirty minutes doing something I enjoy more--either playing intermediate-level classical pieces, or imitating, by ear, the great jazz pianists. I've told my piano teacher this, but she believes that Suzuki has helped my technique immeasurably. True, my technique has improved, but I don't think Suzuki is the main reason. I think Bach inventions, scales, arpeggios, and practice have had more to do with it.

I suppose I could refuse to do the Suzuki anymore--after all, I am paying for the lessons and I'm not a child--but then I think, "What if she's right? What if Suzuki really is helping me?"

It's a dilemma.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Monday, July 24

I worked all day, and poor piano couldn't be the priority. George only got 60 minutes today.

First, I worked on Suzuki. I do not like Suzuki. I find it boring and not very helpful. My piano teacher, on the other hand, loves Suzuki and swears that it's improving my technique. So I'm doing Suzuki ... even though it bores me to tears. It's like bad medicine that I have to take a couple of times each week before my next piano lesson. It only takes about fifteen minutes each time, but those are the longest fifteen minutes of my entire practice session.

After an interminable fifteen minutes, I moved on to scales. First, I played last night's challenge: B harmonic minor in contrary motion, four octaves at 80 on the metronome. Perfect! Just to make sure it wasn't a fluke, I played it through a few more times. Perfect!

Tonight's official scales were E-flat major and C minor. Both normally pose little problem for me, but just for fun I did the 9-8 thing for both. I hit snags and fixed them. When I finally did the play-through with the metronome, they were ... perfect!

Arpeggios were G major and E minor. No prob.

I spent tonight's practice session on the deceptively easy Measures 38 through 49 of the Liszt. I went ahead and memorized them with the correct fingering. With all of that handwiching, it's tempting to throw the fingering out the window and just grab at what you can. Not a good idea, so I drilled the fingering into my brain for a good half hour or more.

Only one measure proved a challenge for me: Measure 46, playing on the C dominant 7th chord. The handwiching gets really hairy in that section, and I kept changing my mind about the ideal fingering. One fingering made more sense but strained my LH a bit. The other one required the LH to jump more, but didn't strain it. Jumping isn't too much of a problem, since I'm both pedaling and playing the LH chords as a slight staccato. But jumping is risky business when you're in the midst of a handwich. I'll have to ask Deborah at my piano lesson what fingering she recommends.

Too tired to tackle Bach tonight. Disheartening. I have to stop this alternating thing, where I work on one piece one day and the other piece the next. I retain everything better if I meet with it all once a day. I played through the fugue (the sections I've worked on HT) once and then called it a night.

My First Wireless Post!

I'm writing this from a coffee shop in Waynesville, North Carolina. I'm wireless. This is my first wireless post. I usually work at home, but I decided I needed to get out of the house for a few hours. So here I am, with Jan's manuscript, my trusty copy of Roget's Thesaurus, my Long Trail Guide, and my laptop.

This is really cool, being able to connect to the internet like this. I am SO twenty-first-century. I have my laptop, my wireless connection, my cell phone nearby (with the ringer off--I don't want to be rude in this public place!), and my palm pilot handy. I'm listening to Bach's orchestral suites on my iPod (so maybe I'm a bit seventeenth-century too).

Ah, this is such a different life from the long-distance hiking life. But it's all good, I think.

Time to get to work on Chapter 17!

Yes, I'm Still Alive

The last two weeks of my life have been very strange indeed, but they're over, and I'm back on track. Not much to blog about, really. I just wanted to check in and let my faithful readers know that I'm still here and will hopefully be blogging something more interesting soon.

Hope everyone has a good week!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Sunday, July 23

I was only able to practice for about 50 minutes this evening. I'd planned to spend two or three hours at the piano, but ... well, you know how those things go.

Regardless, I had a very good practice session. The Scales o' Day were D major and B minor. D major is easy, so very easy. I played it through a few times, then moved on.

B minor is annoying, so very annoying. From the very moment I learned "B" and "B-flat" as a child, I have confused the two. This doesn't make sense. I never confuse "A" with "A-flat." I never confuse "F" with "F-sharp." Heck, I'm playing the C#-major fugue and have yet to confuse "G" with "F-double-sharp."

It is not a good habit to confuse "B" with "B-flat." Particularly when you're trying to play contrary-motion harmonic-minor scales.

The first run-through of the contrary-motion scale sounded fine. Had I played it at my lesson, my teacher would have written, "Very nice!" in my assignment book. But I knew better. That perfect scale had been the result of luck. So I played it again.

I hit a snag, and then another, and then I got very confused because I was (again) confusing "B" with "B-flat." Frustrating! (Not really, but relatively so.)

So I did the up-nine, down-eight exercise that Robert suggested. All the way through the scale. By the time I made it back to the "starting point," I'd quit hitting snags, and the B-to-Bb thing wasn't bothering me anymore. I turned on my metronome and played the 4-octave contrary-motion exercise five times in a row, without a single missed note.

That up-nine, down-eight thing is my new favorite scale exercise.

Next, I moved on to the fugue. Played through measures 16 through 19.5 a few times (OK, about ten times), just to make sure I remembered it, and then took on the next challenge: the rest of measure 19.

This is a little embarrassing. I spent 40 whole minutes (1) learning the second half of measure 19, and (2) integrating it into measures 16 through 19.5. Granted, I've become religious about playing new things a minimum of fifteen times before I move on. Ten doesn't do the trick for me. It has to be fifteen. And that takes time.

Measures 16 through 19 now sound lovely and smooth. I am, however, feeling a little overwhelmed at the huge mountain of this fugue that lies ahead of me. I'm going to be climbing this sucker for a long, long time. That's not a bad thing, but I do plan to take on a, er, less challenging piece once I'm finished with the Liszt (which I will most certainly finish learning before the fugue).

Speaking of Liszt, I replayed my work from yesterday and then called it a night. I'm tired. Tomorrow's practice shall (mostly) belong to Liszt.

Saturday, July 22

I wasn't home yesterday, but I did manage to snag about 40 minutes with a piano where I was. Did the usual warm-up with scales, arps, and inversions, then went straight to Liszt. I'm at a point right now where I really need to start learning a new section. But first, I played through the part I've already learned. There was one section in which I've missed some big notes every time I've played it through ... so I went to those measures first. Spent about 20 minutes working out the kinks and then drilling it a million times. Then I moved on to the "new" stuff (Sections 6, 7, and 8).

Sections 6, 7, and 8 are not hard. They're a little tricky because of the handwiching, but they're not hard. I can play them almost perfectly when I sight-read. This can only mean one thing:

Deceptively. Easy.

I drilled Section 6 probably more than I needed to. But I really want to "cement" it in my brain, you know? And, as I drilled, little kinks came out here and there: I tended to miss a certain note, or my LH and RH got tangled in a certain spot. So it was a good use of my limited practice time.

I didn't get to move on to the Section 7 and Section 8 drills. Next time.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Friday, July 21

I usually work during the day and practice during the evening. Since I'm going to be at Brevard Music Center tonight to see Chu-Fang Huang perform Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2, I decided to work only a couple of hours this morning and spend the late morning/early afternoon at the piano.

Good decision. I practiced/played for about 80 minutes.

Scales sounded good. Today was Ab-major and F-minor. Of all the scales, I think F-minor and F#-minor give me the most trouble. They shouldn't, but they do. They sound pretty good now, but it took a lot of work to get there.

F-minor acted up a bit, so I tried some of Robert's suggestions (see comments for this post). It helped to do them in groups of nine. The back-and-forth effort of suggestion #4 was actually easier than I thought it would be. "Easy" is a relative term. It wasn't easy, but it wasn't quite the impossible challenge that I imagined it would be.

Next, I went straight to Bach, my beloved Bach. This week's goal for the C#-major fugue has been a seemingly small one: to learn Episode II (measures 16-19) hands-together.

Well, guess what. I DID IT!! And it's only Friday! (My "piano week" runs from Wednesday to Wednesday, since that's when I have my lesson.) Only two days of practicing, and I have all of Episode II hands-together! And Episode II is, in my opinion, the hairiest, scariest section of the entire fugue!

I think the fugue may be within my reach after all. My piano teacher never doubted it but, being a chronic self-doubter, I wasn't so sure. "Just take it as it comes," I thought. "Plug away, and see where it takes you." And look where I am now! All of Episode II, hands-together, in the bag! :)

The next goal is to learn, HT of course, the rest of Measure 19, plus Measures 20-22. Measure 20 has a hairy LH section. That'll be my next big (fun) challenge.

I reviewed last night's work on the Liszt for about 10 minutes. It sounded good. Very good. I've always been better at playing the Romantics than anything else, and I really feel good about how the Liszt is shaping up (the second half of it, at least. That's right. I still need to learn the first half).

Then I did a very dumb thing. I took out Chopin's Bb-minor nocturne (Op. 9, No. 1), just to play it for fun. I love this piece. The reason I started playing piano again was so I could learn this piece. I play it every now and then, but hadn't played it in a couple of weeks.

Why was this a dumb thing to do?

Well, as much as I've played the nocturne, I've never memorized it. (I know. I need to do that.) So I was playing with the music.

Do you know how weird it is to play something in Bb-minor (five flats) when your brain has been spending most of its time in C#-major (seven sharps)?

Do not try this at home, folks.

It was rather amusing, actually. I've never missed so many notes in the nocturne as I missed today. Live and learn. If I ever do a recital, I won't have two such different key signatures next to each other in the program.

Time to run! No practice tonight, probably, but hopefully I'll squeeze in an hour or so tomorrow.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

July 20, Part 2

As promised, here is the second installment of my July 20 practice log!

I practiced for about an hour tonight. I didn't spend much time at all on scales, arps, and inversions. I was ready to get re-acquainted with the Liszt. So, after a few minutes of a "warm up," I went straight to Liszt.

The 9-against-4 is coming. Still not there yet, not completely, but it's coming. It's a LOT easier if I focus on the timing of the RH and not the timing of the LH. Much easier. Only thing is, it's not easy for my mind to focus on the RH. I don't know why this is. I consciously have to force my mind to think, "Triplets. Slow. Slower than if you were fitting them evenly into the LH notes."

I played through the rest of the piece, just to see where I was weak and what needed the most work. Narrowing it down to "Section 11" (measures 79-90), I practiced it the way I've been practicing the fugue: drilling, drilling, and more drilling.

This piece is very different from the fugue, but it does have one thing in common with it: multiple voices singing multiple melodies. In the Liszt, the RH (mostly) plays two voices: the main melody and its echo a third of a beat later. If that's not tricky enough, there are dynamics to think about. My RH will be playing two notes at once, but the bottom note is part of the primary melody and needs to be, say, mezzo forte, whereas the top note is part of the echo and needs to be piano. And both are in a crescendo, but a crescendo appropriate to their respective volumes. Argh.

Measures 81, 83, and 87 include grace notes. The fingering for these has been really tricky for me. Do I use 4-5-4? 3-5-4? It would be nice to use the same fingering for the melody and the echo, but that would be really awkward. Typically, the note that follows the grace note is the top part of a chord, so my 1, 2, 3, and 4 fingers need to be ready to play the chord, so that makes things even trickier.

I think I've found fingerings that I'm happy with. For tonight. They are as follows (lower melody is in bold; echo isn't.)

Measure 81: 3-5-3, 4-5-4
Measure 83: 3-5-4, 3-5-4
Measure 87: 3-4-3, 3-5-4

The 3-5-4 works beautifully on Measure 83, but it needs some work in Measure 87. The the grace note is B-C# to B, so even though 4-5-4 would be more within reach (and allow me to hold the note in the lower melody), it's very awkward for the grace note. 3-5-4 isn't much better, but it worked the best for me.

If anyone has suggestions for alternate fingerings, I'll be happy to hear them. I practiced these fingerings tonight and they sound pretty good (though the lost "hold" on the main-melody note in Measure 87 irks me).

OK. Boring technical discussion over. I love this piece. When I play it, I hear a million things I need to work on, but the tape-recording I made tonight sounded impressive. This is a big deal; rarely do I sound impressive to myself when I tape my playing. But I listened to myself playing Measures 62 to the end, and ... well, it sounded quite good. Put a big grin on my face, it did.

I was tempted to work on the Bach, but it's after 10:00 and I'm trying to overcome an insomnia problem. The fugue would probably not be conducive to sleeping.

Good night!

July 20 Practice, Part 1

I'm calling this "Part 1" because I'm planning a second practice session this evening.

Spent about 50 minutes on the piano. About 15 minutes were devoted to scales, arps, and inversions. The Bb-minor scale was giving me some trouble, for some reason. I do not want to devote a huge percentage of my practice time to scales, but last week's 20-minutes-per-scale work was surprisingly helpful. So I spent some extra time drilling Bb-minor.

I took about five minutes to play through the C#-major prelude, and then the rest of the session was spent on the fugue. (This morning, when my alarm went off, my first thought was, "I'm tired. I don't want to get out of bed yet." Then I thought, "But I get to practice the fugue today!" And I got right up.) I now, ladies and gentlemen, have not one and a half, but TWO and a half measures in the bag. Measures 17 and 18, with half of 19 (the end of Episode I) are sounding nice. I'm also learning the measures by memory as I go. It's making them easier to learn, since I'm forced to focus on how the notes look in my hands, what intervals are being played, etc.

My brain is turning cartwheels. I love this stuff. I wish I could spend all day working on it. But I'm not thinking, "Oh, why didn't I start learning HT sooner?" I think I started it right when I needed to.

Tonight I'm going to revisit Liszt. It's been awhile since I've worked on it, so tonight's practice will probably be more of a "re-acquainting" session than anything else. Oh, and the 9-against-4 section is on the agenda, as always!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Today's Practice

No official practice report for today, but I did write about the joy of learning a fugue on A Sort of Notebook.

No Regrets about the Fugue

Every so often, I've been guilty of playing the pointless mind-game of looking on my past and wondering what might have been. I know it's a waste of time and energy, but it happens every now and then. I'll play something particularly well on the piano and think, "If only I'd taken music more seriously as a kid, I might have become ... what?" A concert pianist? A Julliard graduate? A composer? An unemployed thirtysomething who occasionally plays for church, kind of like I am now? Who knows? Who cares?

Yes, I have a few regrets about the not-so-diligent practicing habits of my formative years. I'll admit that much. But, as I'm working on the C#-major fugue, I'm realizing something very important: As a teenager, I would never, ever, not in a million years, have had the patience necessary to learn a fugue and play it well.

There. I said it. Even if I'd taken piano seriously, I honestly think a fugue would have knocked me out of the ball game of ... whatever imaginary (mind) game I was in. I would have given up and hated Bach forever and ever.

There's good news, though. I'm learning a fugue now. And I have the patience now to learn it. Good thing, because the fugue is taking a mountain of patience. Good thing I love Bach so unconditionally.

I was excited last year when Deborah mentioned that I might want to start learning one of Bach's Preludes and Fugues from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier in the near future. Learning a fugue is ... a big step. And she believed I was "more than ready" for it. "So," she innocently suggested, "Just start listening to all of the preludes and fugues. Pick out the one you like best, and we'll work on that one. I'll go ahead and order the book."

She didn't say, "Pick out either X, Y, or Z because they're the least technically challenging, and any of those would be a good 'first fugue.'" No, she just said to pick one out.

I listened to several different recordings of the preludes and fugues. Listened to them as I worked out. Listened to them as I tried to fall asleep. Really listened to them. My favorite, from the very first listen, remained the same: the prelude and fugue in C-sharp major.

So I went to my next piano lesson and said, quite ignorantly, "I'd like to learn the C-sharp major."

Did she mention that it's one of the most difficult fugues in Book I? Did she mention that I'd be wrangling with seven sharps? Did she mention that this would be the biggest challenge yet of my pianistic experience?

Of course not. She just sweetly said, "OK, that's a nice one." Or something like that.

It's taken a while (thanks more to scheduling than anything else), but I'm finally working hands-together. I spent 40 minutes tonight learning my first measure and a half (measure 18 and the first part of measure 19) hands-together. It's hard. Progress was glacial. I felt stupid. I felt frustrated. My right hand felt tired. As a teenager, I would never have stood for the feeling-stupid part. As a teenager, I would have hated the fugue. As an adult, I think, "Hm, this makes me feel stupid and frustated. So after I work through the stupid-and-frustrated stage and actually learn the music, I'll have become a better pianist!"

I know that sounds very optimistic and Pollyanna-ish, but experience has shown that the feeling-stupid phase often precedes a mini-breakthrough.

Anyway, after learning the measure-and-a-half at a glacial tempo, I played it about fifty times. I started slow, making sure every rest, every staccato, every held note was correct. (It would be a nightmare to have to un-learn and re-learn anything I didn't do correctly the first hundred times.) I didn't try to speed up, but after about fifteen repeats, I naturally sped up. After fifty repeats, I was playing it at a musical pace (i.e., it sounded like music and not like slowly thudding notes). I was also playing it by memory. And it sounded good!

I am so unbelievably thrilled. George and I danced a dance of joy at our successful hands-together playing of our first measure of our first fugue. I will remember tonight's practice session forever. If you've ever learned a fugue, you may have an inkling of how I'm feeling right now. If you haven't, you probably just think I'm a big piano nerd. (And you are probably correct.)

Maybe I would have remained patient enough to learn a fugue as a teenager. Maybe I would have experienced that thrill twenty years ago. It's good to know that I probably wouldn't have done either. It's good to know that I can do all of that now.

Classical-Music Links Galore

Bart Collins of The Well-Tempered Blog points to David Mattison's article, "Music to Soothe the Savage Searcher: Classical Music Databases and Web Resources," which includes Bart's blog in its monster list of classical-music links. Classical-music lovers, you should definitely check this one out. (The article, I mean. But the blog is great, too. Go to both.)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Now the Fun(?) Begins!

As I mentioned in my last post, my piano teacher (Deborah) said it's time for me to start putting my hands together on the fugue.

Sigh. I was afraid of that. And it sounded so nice hands-separately.

But first ... she said to pick out the section I considered the most difficult, and to start by tackling it.

OK. Not an unusual approach to learning something.

So I picked out measures 17-19. It's physically impossible for me to maintain every complete held note in this section, and it will continue to be until I get my hand-stretching machine from eBay (heh). It's a scary, scary section for me; the paper is nearly rubbed through from repeated eraser marks as I changed the fingering and changed it back again (and again, and again ...). I hadn't done the hands-separately mega-drill session on this section yet, so that's what I did today.

Best to ease up to that hands-together thing., don't you think?

I had about an hour available for practicing. I flew through the scales, inversions, and arps (man, are they sounding good!) and went straight to the fugue.

I drilled. And I drilled. And I drilled. (I think I'm starting to sound like a dentist here ...)

The LH isn't bad in this section because it's only playing the bass voice. The RH, on the other hand (no pun intended), is playing alto and soprano, and the soprano is doing all of these wonderful musical arabesques from high held notes to lower notes over an octave down and than back up a sixth, and then up an octave to a high-above held note again. It's really very lovely.

The alto, meanwhile, is not exactly repeating the soprano, but shadowing it. Jumping up a fourth instead of a sixth or an octave. And it's a quarter-beat behind.

Argh. Just thinking about it makes my brain long for something easier to think about--like quantum physics, maybe, or advanced calculus.

Anyway, the RH sounds good. The LH sounds great. Put 'em together, and ...

Oh, my.

I think this is where the fun is supposed to begin.

Stay tuned. I'll be sure and report the moment, which may be a very long time from now, when I can actually play a single measure of this fugue hands-together.

I finished up the too-brief practice session with a run-through of the Liszt. I hate that I haven't been near a piano since my lesson last Thursday, but as they say, poop happens. And a lot of poop has been happening lately.

Stay tuned ... I've slated tomorrow and Tuesday for monster practice sessions (unless more poop happens), to make up for the missed days this weekend.

Today's total practice time: about 60 minutes.

What's New With Me

I'll bet you're dying to know. I haven't been online very much lately, so I haven't been updating. My apologies to those of you who enjoy reading my frequent posts--I hate to disappoint. Alas, it can't be helped for the moment. So, here's a run-down on how I'm doing, just in case I'm not able to post again for several days.

Editing: I've been editing a lot. My friend Jan has written a wonderful journal, and I'm doing my best to help her make it into a wonderful book. Editing takes a lot of time, so I've been spending a lot of time ... well, editing. I'll let you know when the book is published so you can order multiple copies and make Jan a best-selling author and millionaire. She deserves it, after putting up with my ultra-picky editorial comments.

Home: I haven't been home a lot. The Hubster is a summer camp director, so he's been home even less than I have. Poor kitties. It's been a quiet house this summer.

Piano: I've been practicing every chance I get, though my not-being-at-home situation has decreased those opportunities rather significantly. Pieces are coming along. Read all about my progress and today's practice at Waterfall's Practice Log.

Music: Between the Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival and the Brevard Music Center, it's been a great summer for taking in musical performances. In just the last month, I've seen/heard Cosi fan Tutte, Mahler's "Titan" Symphony, Brahms's Second Piano Concerto, a percussion concerto, Mendelssohn's D-minor Piano Trio, and much, much more, all performed by top-notch musicians.

Employment: I think I mentioned here at some point that I resigned from my teaching job. I may go back and teach a single writing class in the fall, but I couldn't do the soul-sucking 100-plus hour a week schedule anymore. I'm not sure what to do now. I'm thinking about freelance writing and editing, though I'm not sure if that will be enough to put food on the table.

Insomnia: I finally went to the doctor, and she gave me a prescription for Temazepam (Restoril). I've been taking it for about four days. Four nights, actually. It seems to be helping. I wonder how long it takes a body to recover from ten months of chronic insomnia.

Running: The knee pain kicked in. So much for a Someday Marathon. As long as I do a combination of walking and jogging and don't run more than four miles at a time, I'm OK. So running will be a part of my workout routine, but it won't be the main thing.

Laptop: I finally got a new laptop. His name is Franz. Everyone, say hello to Franz.

That's about it. And now, it's back to the editing job for me.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Tar Heel Tavern #73: In A Pickle

Oh, dear. I seem to be in a pickle. I’m the host of this week’s Tar Heel Tavern, the theme of which is “In a Pickle,” and I haven’t a thing to submit. How embarrassing. Between my topsy-turvy week and my current touch-and-go Internet access, my blogging life has come to a near-standstill. So, instead of perusing this blog for a brilliant post on being “in a pickle,” check out some of the posts described below--all written by North Carolina bloggers who did submit something for this week's Tavern.

Ron of 2sides2Ron tells us that promoting Democracy in the Middle East is a lofty goal, but he wonders if US foreign policy will be able to survive it, given the situation that has developed in the Middle East. In Picky Democracy, he asks if we've put ourselves in a proverbial pickle with the legitimization of Hamas as a democratic choice. What do you think? Stop by his blog and let him know!

On a lighter note, Erin of Poetic Acceptance brought back fond memories of 80s-era arcades with her hilarious “embarrassing-moment” story, complete with picture. She writes about a day in the life (her life) of a young, as-yet-undeveloped teenager. (Oh, aren’t those years just full of most embarrassing moments?). Read about her fine leather-looking 80s swimsuit and her adventure on a kiddie dolphin ride that was “made to fit the butts of toddlers, not the smart asses of teenagers.” Heh. I love that line.

You know, if I were a hard-butted professional athlete (would that I were!) and I got caught in a doping scandal, I’d sure be in a pickle. In The Outspokin’ Cyclist: Some athletes lose sight of sportsmanship of biking, Phillip Barron of posts an article on just what is wrong with doping. In a word (well, three words), he writes, “doping is cheating.” He later writes, “Cheating (or doping) enters the picture when the desire to win the game supplants the desire to be an athlete who is worthy of winning.” Wise words, there.

Coturnix of A Blog Around the Clock found himself in a bit of a pickle this week, not having a single item to submit that would fit the “in a pickle" theme. So he submitted several and graciously invited me to choose one. Alas, my pitiful computer situation didn’t allow me the leisure to pick and choose, so I read all of them, and I now submit them to you: Happy Birthday, Nikola Tesla!, What is the Future of the Institution of Marriage?, The Dance and the Snakes, and Friday Weird Sex Blogging: The Birds Do It. Which do you find the most pickle-worthy? On second thought, don’t answer that.

Colonel Corn's Camera offers a great story about a pickle that he and his rival professional photographers found themselves in. Seems they needed to get a picture of a defendant exiting the Mecklenburg County Court House … only they didn’t know what she looked like, they didn’t know what door she would be exiting, and they weren’t allowed to take cameras into the court house itself. What followed was the Comedy of Sprinting Photographers. Funny stuff. Read all about it.

To be “in a pickle” means to be in an embarrassing or crucial situation. So, why would anyone want to risk being in a pickle? “Our world has turned into The Olive Garden,” writes songwriter Christine Kane, where “The reigning mantra seems to be, ‘Just keep us safe. Don’t challenge us. Fill us up with pasta and the same salty salads everywhere we go.’" And you can bet those salads don’t include pickles.

She suggests a once-a-month “Adventure Day,” in which you try something a little scary, or maybe a little cheesy, every now and then--just to break the monotony of our “Olive-Garden” world and maybe open our eyes (and our lives) a little bit. And if you find yourself in a pickle in the process … so what? Click the "Adventure Day" link above and read all about one of Christine’s own Adventure Days.

Over at ...slowly she turned, Laurie thought the theme was “in a sickle,” so she proceeded to write about life in a hammock. Seriously, check out her blog for some peaceful pictures, all taken from a hammock, of her stay at Lake Waccamaw last month.

Billy the Blogging Poet had nary a pickle-themed poem to submit, so he did the second-best thing: submitted The Ballad of Bread and Butter. Perhaps this week’s Tavern will inspire him to add a verse …

When I named the “in a pickle” theme, I wondered who would submit the oddest pickle-post of all. The award goes to Mr. Ogre of Ogre's Politics and Views. He begins by telling us what we all wanted to know: four-foot tall plastic floating pickles are indeed available on the internet. His "Giant Pickle" post is all-inclusive and even includes a pickle anecdote. And he tells us that, while he likes pickles, he’s “not really ready to make the commitment to LOVE them just yet.” When you do, Mr. Ogre, we know you’ll be running up your credit card at

As for myself, I hate pickles, I love Adventure Days, I drool over hard-butted athletes, I’m a little leery about sleeping in hammocks, I'm crazy about poetry, I'm not a very good photographer, I have No Comment on matters political, and I'm wondering how many people clicked the "Weird Sex Blogging" link before any other.

Dear readers, I hope you get a chance to check out all of the North Carolina blogs linked above. And don't forget to visit Moomin Light next week for the 74th edition of the Tavern.

Many thanks to all who submitted!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Thursday, July 13

I worked in a short practice today. Had piano this afternoon.

The short practice involved the usual scales and arps, and a run-through of my pieces. It wasn't so much a practice as a review.

Piano was good. She said that the Bach sounded very musical. I asked what I should do next, practice-wise--continue drilling and memorizing HS, or start HT? She said that I "shouldn't hold off any longer" on playing HT, and to keep drilling HS if I want but to begin working HT on whatever I find to be the most difficult passage of the fugue. That's easy. I don't have the music in front of me, but in the Alfred edition, it's the bottom of page two.

I played the Liszt pretty well, if a bit timidly. I'm playing it with emotion and paying attention to all of the dynamics and all of that, but I'm still also trying to make sure I get the notes right in several sections. She had all kinds of nice things to say about the Liszt. The 9-against-4 is sounding much better (though it's not there yet), and she was really happy with how I played the last page. I really feel like I'm turning a corner with the Liszt. It's stopped seeming "hard." It's still challenging, but I feel like I've "got it." I have yet to learn Sections 1-5, but those will be easy, at least compared to the second half of the piece. (I never like to use the word "easy" for anything piano-related.)

No practice after piano today, as my sister is visiting.

Tar Heel Tavern is Here This Week

I'll be hosting the Tar Heel Tavern this weekend, so if you're a North Carolina blogger, I urge you to submit something. Last week's theme at Writing for Nonprofits was "in a pinch," so I've made this week's theme "in a pickle." Write about a time when you were in a particularly embarrassing or critical situation, and send me a link and short description of your post. My e-mail is listed right below my profile in the right column of my blog.

See y'all this weekend at the Tavern!

Wednesday, July 12

Today was a crazy schedule. I was supposed to have piano, but my piano teacher had to cancel at the last minute. Then a nine-hour editing job came up, so I was busiliy working most of the day. No practice. :(

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Tuesday, July 11

I didn't get to practice today because I was tied up in a job all day long. I did, however, get to see William Preucil, Eric Kim, and Arthur Rowe perform Mendelssohn's D minor piano trio last night--wonderful! Also on the program were Beethoven's D major violin sonata and Brahms' F major cello sonata.

Just as watching really good tennis players improves my tennis game, watching pianists improves my piano playing. Weird how that happens.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

New Piano Blogs in the Blogroll

I've added a couple of blogs to my blogroll here at A Sort of Notebook, as well as on Waterfall's Practice Log.

Pianist and Curtis faculty member Hugh Sung's blog, Music Meets Tech, is mostly about using technology with piano- and music-related matters. I discovered it through Piano World, where he's been a helpful voice to many of the pianists there.

The Opinionated Arpeggist is an amateur pianist and university professor I've befriended through e-mail. He writes about practicing (similar to my practice log), and philosophical matters related to being an amateur pianist. His posts on Measuring Difficulty have both been thought-provoking, and I hope to address the same topic here before his posts get buried hopelessly in his archives.

So, those of you who like reading about the nitty-gritty of music and piano-playing performance, be sure and check out these blogs.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Monday, July 10

I've been going through the dark night of the soul and suffering the tortures of the damned for the past few days. (Maybe that's a little extreme, but things have been pretty bad.) Piano is the one constant I can keep going back to. I'm finding so much solace in it these days. I can't do too much of anything else, but at least I can play scales and drill single measures and repeat small groups of measures over and over again.

Today I had two practice sessions. For Session 1, I worked on scales, arpeggios, inversions, and Liszt. Even though I've only just started spending more time on scales, I can already see the difference. I continue to play with rhythms. This time I played funky jazz-sounding rhythms, with lots of syncopation and odd assortments of fast and slow notes. I repeated notes and "riffs" here and there (always the scales in similar and contrary motion) ... and it was fun--A whole lot more fun than just playing up and down the keyboard with the metronome. And when I did go back to the more traditional way of playing the scale, it sounded so much better.

Folks, I think I have a fun new way to practice scales.

The latent composer in me is screaming, "Write an etude! Write an etude!" But I'm ignoring it for now. Right now I want to focus on learning those scales as well as possible. If a mini-etude gets written in the process, then so be it.

Arpeggios, too, are benefitting from the added attention. They are starting to sound really good. Even the ever-pesky Gb major and Eb minor arps didn't sound too shabby today.

For my morning Liszt practice, I worked (again) on the 9-against-4s. Sigh. So frustrating. But it's coming. It's just a matter of time. I made some headway today--learned that if I focus more on the triplets in the RH rather than the eighth notes in the LH, I don't get so confused.

I also focused on a very small section that includes the "echoing notes." I can play it, but it's not 100% comfortable. So I drilled and drilled and drilled. Worked really hard on making the main theme come out and having the "echo" play softly, almost as background. It gets a little tricky at times.

Here's a tangent: I love watching David Effron conduct at the Brevard Music Center. He is a true showman. He's very animated up there, and he looks like he's having so much fun that he makes me wish I'd become a conductor myself. When he wants the strings to quiet down, he'll but his index finger to his lips like he's whispering, "Shhhh." It's great. He whispers "shhh," and the strings die right down. Just like that.

So when I was practicing the Liszt today, whenever I got to an "echo," I had this image of David Effron whispering "shhh" to the orchestra. And it helped me to remember to "shush" the echo. As I continued to practice, I imagined having a conductor in my head, motioning to increase the volume, speed up a little, "shhhh," etc., depending on what the music said to do. It was so much fun. Kind of like being my own little orchestra with my own conductor. I think I'm going to do more of that.

Tonight's practice focused on Bach. I did more scales and arpeggios first because they're immensely therapeutic, then I went on to the fugue.

I feel almost like I'm taking a step backward with the fugue, but I think it's a necessary step. I wrote about it in a previous post, so I won't go into details here. The sections that I've learned by memory (and have drilled a million times) are sounding very, very good. I'm so happy with how they sound and how my hands are molding into the their roles. I haven't covered a lot of ground in the fugue this week because I've been working so hard on such small parts. But I've gone deep rather than wide, and that's important, too.

And you know what? I'm in no hurry to master this. No hurry at all. It'll happen when it happens.

Time for sleep.

Today's total practice time: About 130 minutes.

Arpeggio Lesson Online

Here's a short video on arpeggios. I must admit that, when I first started taking lessons again a few years ago, the first thing my piano teacher did was to dispel the myth that one needs to be all wrist-twisty when playing arpeggios. My previous piano teachers had taught me to play them legato, which required a bit of awkward twisting of the wrist whenever the thumb goes under. For the past couple of years, I've been doing something like the small "leap" discussed in this video. The instructor here says that there will be a small pause during the leap, but I've found that practice makes the pause barely noticeable. Also, if I don't try to play them super-legato, the pause isn't noticeable at all.

All of the practicing has contributed to a legato sound in all of my arpeggios. It's not something I worked toward, but I've noticed that they're sounding much smoother and not as "jumpy."

Small goals. Little victories.

Art Loeb Pictures & Tar Heel Tavern

I forgot to mention that my friend Jan "LiteShoe" posted pictures of our hike of the Art Loeb Trail last month. The Art Loeb is a thirtysomething-mile trail in western North Carolina. You can find 'em starting here.

Speaking of North Carolina, the Tar Heel Tavern is up at Writing for Nonprofits.

Sunday, July 9, 2006

Sunday, July 9

What a long day I had today. Didn't get to sit down at the piano until 10:15 tonight.

I practiced for about 70 minutes tonight. About 20 minutes were spent on scales and arpeggios: Eb major and C minor for scales, and C major and A minor for arpeggios.

Eb major and C minor are two of the easiest scales to play in contrary motion because they're "mirrors" of each other. I had no problem with the initial playing of either tonight, so I quickly went on to "scale variations" of all kinds. Tonight I worked on staccato/legato, plus a fun loud/soft exercise: The RH starts out soft, and the LH starts out loud (or vice-versa). As I move up the keyboard, the RH does a crescendo and the LH a decrescendo. As I move back down, they go back to the original.

I'm able to do this. I have to focus on the crescendo/decrescendo to the point that I forget to focus on the notes. And I still played them correctly! The muscle memory is finally kicking in! Yay! The scales are sounding smooth and polished, too. I'm playing them at 80 now (can't remember if I mentioned that before.

Oh, and I also tried playing them two octaves apart (rather than one octave). Would you believe, I find them easier when I play them that way? Go figure.

You would think that C major and A minor would be among the easiest of arpeggios, since they consist of white keys only. Nope. I find the black-white-black arps, like Eb major and Ab major the easiest. Bb and B are pretty easy, too. The all-white and all-black keys are more challenging.

Still, C major and A minor sounded fine tonight. I did some similar games with dynamics and rhythms. I played them with a swing rhythm, then made up a few other rhythms, and at some point I realized I was having fun, I mean, really enjoying myself. Go figure. :)

Then it was onward to the Bach Fugue in C#-major. I approached it the same way I did in yesterday's practice: chose a handful of measures and drilled the hell out of them.

In the past, either because I didn't have enough time or because I didn't know any better, I would drill something--a measure or a handful of measures--five or six, maybe ten times before moving on to the next few measures. I never really counted. Now, however, I'm drilling small sections a minimum of twenty times each, with the metronome, by memory. I speed the metronome up a bit--not nearly to the prescribed tempo, of course. I got up to 60 tonight, working HS on measures one through eleven.

Why drill it so many times when I actually feel like I've "gotten it" after five or six?

For one thing, only five or six repetitions do not constitute "getting it," even if it feels that way at the time.

But here's the main thing: around repetition number fifteen, something happens. My hand falls into its own rhythm and suddenly seems to acquire a gracefulness--the kind of gracefulness and ease of movement I usually see in the hands of concert pianists. It is pure delight to watch my hand dancing so easily across the "stage" of the keyboard, and to hear each note executed with clarity and conciseness and charm. No, I'm not bragging about my playing. Just trying to explain the joy of working really hard at a fugue and experiencing the tiny victories that come with setting small goals and reaching them.

As I mentioned earlier, I've decided to start trying to memorize it now, even though I'm still in HS stage. (I should have started learning it HT this week, but we never got around to the fugue at my last lesson.) See, I can play the whole thing, relatively smoothly, hands separately. Because it sounds only relatively smooth (relative to how it sounded the first time I tried to play it!), I decided that wasn't good enough, and that I wanted to use this "extra" week to really learn it.

While learning HS the first time around, I would think to myself, "This is going to be a bear to memorize. How will I ever memorize this?" I usually like to memorize a piece as I learn it, thus saving myself the hassle of having to memorize it later. I think I shied away from trying to commit the fugue to memory because ... well, because it's a big, convoluted piece with seven sharps. It's possibly the most difficult piece I've ever played. It's big and mean and scary.

But it's not mean in a bad way. I love this piece. I listened to all of the Book I preludes and fugues, and I loved this one the most, and that's why I'm learning it now. I was a little anxious about the seven sharps, but I've found that I actually like playing in seven sharps. But the thought of trying to memorize this lovely fugue was ... intimidating, to say the least.

I bit the bullet and started working on the HS by memory. And I now have measures one through eleven seared, seared in my memory. I'll have the first two pages in the old noggin by the time I go to bed tomorrow night. At least that's the plan.

I didn't get around to poor, neglected Liszt tonight (it's very late). I'll just have to make up for the lost time tomorrow. :)

Saturday, July 8, 2006

Saturday, July 8

No time to write at the moment, but I wanted to put this down before I forgot.

One hour of practice today. About 20 minutes on scales, arpeggios, and inversions. More time than I'm "supposed" to spend on them, but I find them therapeutic.

About 40 minutes on the fugue. Lots of drilling on small sections. I played one small section probably 40 or 50 times. It sounded much better after all of that.

I like this drilling ad infinitum thing. Like the scales, they're therapeutic, and that's what I need right now.


I ran a 5K today. It wasn't one of those 5K races; I just ran on the treadmill. I've been covering five miles a day, alternating between running and walking, and usually running about three miles and walking about two miles. I'm meeting with a trainer next week to make sure I'm not doing anything too stupid to destroy my feet or knees. I don't think I am.

For some reason, no matter how awful and tired and depressed I am, putting one foot in front of the other makes things better for a while. I've been a big walker for years; ever since 1992, I've covered an average of about 20-30 miles a week. And, of course, I'm an avid long-distance hiker who loves nothing more than to chug up hills with 25 pounds on my back. My longest backpacking day was a full marathon: 26.2 miles from Jerry Cabin Shelter on the AT to Hot Springs, NC, in November. Not as many miles as a lot of backpackers out there, but nothing to sneeze at, either, if I may say so myself. :)

But I've never been a runner. I first tried running when I was in high school. I was overweight and too embarrassed to run in public, so I would wake up at 4:30 a.m. and run around my neighborhood in the dark. That lasted for a few weeks until one morning when I got a horrible pinched-nerve pain in my knee. I couldn't walk for several days. So much for that. It was heartbreaking, though; I'd discovered that I loved running, and had hoped running would become a lifelong activity--as well as the key to losing all those pounds.

I tried running again the summer after my sophomore year of college. Same thing: Ran for a few weeks, then got the debilitating pain in my knee, used people's shoulders as crutches for a few days, and quit running.

I went to orthopedists and sports-medicine doctors, but no one could tell me what was wrong.

I got the same pain one more time, when I was backpacking in Arkansas. It was my first solo backpacking trip, and I was carrying entirely too much weight for my small frame. A day and a half into the trip, the knee pain knocked me down, and I literally had to crawl my way out of the woods ... on one knee.

Rest, a lighter pack, and hiking poles saved my backpacking career. The knee pain has never come back. Shortly after the Arkansas trip, I went to an osteopath who said my left leg was longer than my right leg, which was putting undue pain on the knee. He did some adjustments to "even out" my legs. I think that helped, too. In fact, that may have been the real answer to my knee problems.

So, I'm trying to run again. I started about a week ago. I checked out several marathon-running training guides, and they begin with running 3-4 miles a day. Huh? I'm working my way up to three miles.

So, after a week of running (not every day, of course), I ran 3.1 miles today. No knee pain yet. It'll be a few weeks before I know it this will work this time. I'm hoping that meeting with a trainer will help, although my last trainer experience was a disaster. (Note to self: do not leg-press 230 pounds, even though your trainer tells you that you're capable of it.)

A marathon isn't on the horizon, but perhaps it will be eventually. For the moment, I just think it will be fun to run some 5Ks and maybe work my way up to a half-marathon. A marathon would be cool, though. Maybe one of these days.

Friday, July 7: Piano Notes

I wrote about yesterday's disastrous lesson here. I have this bipolar thing going on, and I've been allergic to the 2,381 meds they've tried, so I'm currently unmedicated. That can make for some awkward situations, and yesterday's would-be piano lesson was one of them. Luckily, I have an understanding piano teacher.

Today, after a full day of editing and spending some time with my parents (who were in town for a few hours), I finally had a few free hours for piano.

I'm up to 80 for my scales and 63 for my arpeggios. For scales, I did G major, E minor, Ab major, and F minor. For arps, I did B major, G# minor, F major, and D minor.

Here's what I do for both scales and arpeggios:

One octave, similar motion, one note per beat
Two octaves, contrary motion, two notes per beat
Three octaves, similar motion, three notes per beat
Four octaves, contrary motion, four notes per beat

Scales sounded quite good. I'm only "supposed" to do a major with its relative minor each day, but I'm flying through them so fast that I added a second set today. I played each scale through five or six times, giving myself a new challenge each time: legato/staccato, loud/soft, dotted notes, etc. Finally, after at least a year of doing this, those contrary motions scales are getting to a point where I can play them without having to give each individual note 100% of my attention. So it's good news that I was able to add the dynamics and rhythm variations and still play them.

My arpeggios are ... hm. They're not bad at all. But they're not ... good. Mr. Opinionated Arpeggist, perhaps you can give me some advice here. I want smooth-sounding arpeggios. They sound great until I get to four notes per beat. They still sound OK--I'm hitting the right notes, and my timing is good--but they're ... wimpy. The timing is even, but the volume isn't. One note will be louder than the other, then the next one will be too soft. Or I'll completely miss it. I won't hit the wrong note; I just won't hit the right one hard enough to make any sound.

It sounds OK at 60 and at lower tempos, but it still doesn't have the smooth, consistent sound that I'd like. What's your advice? To slow down again? Aaarrrggghhh ... I did work in rhythms tonight, and consciously made myself play with more force. That helped, I think. It didn't sound very pretty, but at least I was pressing all the notes down with equal force.

Next was Liszt. I thought I had the 9-against-4 thing, but I didn't. I tried just "winging" it, but that doesn't work, either (would that it did!). My brain wants to make it 12-against-4, timing wise, would would be oh-so-easy. So my right hand starts at the tempo it would need in order to play twelve notes ... and it's, of course, too fast. So, when I consciously try to play the RH more slowly, guess what ... the LH slows down, too. I guess this is just something I'll have to keep practicing until I get it right. It's just very, very frustrating. I'm not used to not being able to do something after a couple of tries. Here I've tried it at least 100 times, and I still don't seem to be able to wrap my brain around it.

After practicing the 9-against-4 measures ad nauseam, I went on to the next section: the one with the echoes. I'm being wishy-washy about the fingering. Here's why: it's physically impossible for me to hold all the notes that need to be held while playing the other notes that need to be played. The truth hurts, but there it is. I'm 5'2" and very petite. I have Mozart-sized hands. Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Brahms ... those guys weren't thinking of me when they were composing, no sirree. I can comfortably reach a ninth on the white keys. And I can reach up a ninth to the next black key (say, from middle C to the Db one octave up). But that's about it.

Well, I'd worked out some rather awkward fingerings that worked (they involved weird things like playing 2-against-3 with a single hand), but were awkward. My piano teacher said I should do the less-awkward fingerings and compensate for my hand-smallness by using dynamics and pedal. I'm not sure if I agree with her on that, but she's the one with the D.Mus. from Indiana University. I'll try her method, and if I just can't get used to it, I'll try mine again.

So I went through and changed some of the fingerings tonight. I spent a long time playing and replaying a section of about eight measures with the new fingering. A long time, for me. Maybe an hour or more. On just those few measures. I could have moved on to something else (say, Bach or someone), but dammit, I'm sick of having this piece not feel like an easy chair. If I have to play those eight measures 1,000 times for them to feel comfortable, then that's just what I have to do.

By the time I finished the practice session, those eight measures were sounding pretty good. And something else happened: I noticed that my fingers are starting to look graceful and relaxed as I play ... not like they're struggling to reach the notes and hit the right ones. That was a good feeling. That's what they're supposed to look like.

Only eight measures. I have a long way to go. This is so much work. Mind you, I'm not complaining about the work. I love the work. I don't love the fact that my time for the work is limited, but I do love the work itself.

And it is so much work. My admiration for professional classical pianists is increasing astronomically these days.

Friday, July 7, 2006

Thursday, July 6, 2006

A Disappointing Piano Day

Piano was rough today. I've been in this depressive crash for several weeks now (more like several months, but that's another story), and today was one of those days where I'm so overly emotional and sensitive that the most insignificant look or comment can send me into uncontrollable crying fits.

No, it's not PMS. It would be easier if it were PMS. That would mean it would go away in a few days.

So I was at piano and got the first lump-in-the-throat while I was doing the B-flat minor scale. All that practicing I did last week, and ... it's like I forgot my brain at home. Then the Suzuki, then Liszt, my beloved Liszt.

I don't remember what set me off. It was something minor, something that, under normal circumstances, would never have set me off. But I started crying and couldn't stop. And I couldn't shut up. Geez, I just wanted to apply duct tape to my mouth. But all these whiny things kept coming out. It was awful. It went on forever. We finally got through the Liszt, but we never even made it to Bach.

I was just so upset. And it wasn't because of piano, or my playing, or my poor innocent bystander of a piano teacher. It's as if I was on the verge of a breakdown and was just waiting for the first tipping over of the first domino.

So we finished the lesson, finally (sans Bach), and then had dinner and went on a walk, which was good. I didn't break down crying again until I got in the car to come home.

I hate all of this. It's like my entire life shuts down, unannounced. I'm fine and happy and energetic one day, and then I'm suddenly nonfunctional and paralyzed by depression until ... whenever. Sometimes it's just for a day or two, and sometimes, like this time, it's months. And it seems to be getting worse as I grow older.

By the way, I've alluded to but have never actually shared the nitty-gritty details of my condition on this blog. Please don't e-mail me with a bunch of advice unless you know more about me than I've shared here. I'm not saying that to be mean, and it's not that I don't appreciate the concern. It's just that every time I post something like this, I get all these well-meaning e-mails with mostly inapplicable advice. I'm not writing this as a call for advice, or sympathy. I'm just writing it.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled blog-post.

I'm just disappointed that piano wasn't wonderful. I practiced so diligently these past two weeks. I know I must have retained some of the good that came out of those practices, but it was nowhere to be found today.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Life and Times

I have so much to write, dear readers. I've fallen behind on both this blog and my practice blog. I am very behind on e-mails--not just responding to them, but reading them. I'm also behind on reading blogs.

I have no excuse.

Wait. I do have an excuse. But that's neither here nor there.

Here's what I've been doing:

Last week, as you've probably read, I was in Louisiana. It was to be a time of recalibration and rejuvenation. It was a good "vacation"--I did lots of editing for a freelance job, lots of piano-practicing, and some writing. I had no computer, so I didn't do much in the way of net-surfing or blogging, obviously.

This weekend, my dad and I road-tripped back to North Carolina. We took the long way home--the Mississippi Gulf Coast route. Very sad drive. The big, oak-shaded houses that used to line the road along the coast are all gone. Little remains, except for the cement foundations and the wind-battered oaks. By wind-battered, I meant that the bark of many oaks has been stripped off on the "gulf" side. I'd heard that the coast was devastated beyond belief, and I wanted to see for myself. So now I know.

The beaches, however, were beautiful. And the casinos are rebuilding (not that that's a good thing--I've hated those casinos from the beginning).

Yesterday was a dark night of the soul and a day of grieving for a special person--a friend's mom--who died on Sunday after a two-year battle with cancer. I can't imagine losing my mom. I can't imagine what my friend must be going through.

Today is the funeral, and it's in Louisiana, and I'm back in North Carolina and can't be there for my friend. That makes me sad, too, though I'm sure there will be plenty of friends there for her. Still, I hate being so far away.

Today is also a day for work on my part. Time to get moving. I need to do freelance work, and I have more work scheduled in the effort to get more freelance work. Ah, it's a never-ending cycle. But if I can't make enough money doing freelance, then I'm going have to go back to a Real Job. I think I'm allergic to Real Jobs.

And for those of you who are wondering about my current Real Job status ... no, I'm not going to teach next year. I may still teach a writing class, but I've stepped down from the full-time, soul-sucking arrangement of last year.

So. It's time for work. And I think I'll be able to start posting regularly again, now that I'm home and life is starting to settle down a bit.

Blogging Elsewhere

Hi, Strangers! I've been blogging with my friend Anh over at Then a Gentle Whisper . Check it out!